Contamination of drinking water continued as a top public health concern in 2019 with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launching a Pease-based study of toxic PFAS chemicals and the identification of new tainted sites in Stratham and Hampton.
In addition, New Hampshire lawmakers passed tough new regulations on PFAS chemicals, but a judge later barred the state from enforcing the new standards after 3M and other plaintiffs sued.
The controversy has even made its way to Hollywood with the November opening of the film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The movie chronicles the legal battle against DuPont over the release of a toxic chemical into Parkersburg, West Virginia.
PFAS chemicals, identified by some scientists as a possible cancer risk, are showing up in drinking water across the Seacoast and nation. Prior studies on PFAS have linked the chemicals to health problems, including high cholesterol, reproductive issues and testicular and kidney cancer. Other studies have failed to replicate some of those results.
Concerns about the chemicals have exploded nationally in recent years. PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and water-repellent fabrics and carpet. They also have a range of applications in the aerospace, aviation, automotive and electronics industries, among others.
The chemical began making headlines locally when PFAS contamination was found in drinking water at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth. Thousands of people working there, along with children and infants who attended two Pease day cares, were exposed to multiple PFAS chemicals from the city-owned Haven well until its closure in 2014.
The latest in the PFAS saga includes controversy at the national level with the White House and CDC feuding over a national PFAS health study. Scientists and some lawmakers say a disagreement with the White House has led to delay of the national multi-million dollar federal study, which aims to study 6,000 adults and 2,000 children across the seven states by looking for unusual correlations between PFAS blood levels and medical issues.
The process faces review and delay by the Office of Management and Budget, which some experts complain will take too long. OMB is also saying a separate study of people exposed at Pease should be completed before the review of the national study begins.
Meanwhile, the Pease study is moving ahead. In October, federal officials from the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry announced they were trying to get 1,000 adults and 350 children to participate in the Pease-only study. The Pease results are to be integrated into the first-ever national study on PFAS exposure that will include seven other sites across the country.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., drafted legislation that created the PFAS national study and the pilot study at Pease and secured $20 million in funding to pay for them.
The fight against PFAS contamination hit a major setback in New Hampshire, when Judge Robert McNamara recently granted a temporary injunction requested by 3M and several others who opposed tougher standards that went into effect in October.
The parties, which also included the town of Plymouth, a farmer and a sludge company, sued the states Department of Environmental Resources Commissioner Robert Scott in September, alleging the agency didnt follow the appropriate process in approving the standard. The state denied wrongdoing. The New Hampshire standard limits one chemical to a maximum of 12 parts per trillion and another to 15 ppt, far lower than the 70 ppt the Environmental Protection Agency has advised for the chemicals.
PFAS contamination made headlines in other Seacoast communities, too. State and federal regulators OKd a permit for Waste Management-owned Turnkey Landfill in Rochester to send up to 100,000 gallons a day of polluted runoff to a Massachusetts plant that treats water bound for the Merrimack River, a major drinking water source supplying 500,000 people. Waste Management has acknowledged that the runoff contains PFAS contaminants and that the treatment plant in Lowell, Massachusetts, doesnt have equipment to filter out those harmful chemicals.
PFAS chemicals contaminating the water at a number of businesses in the center of Stratham likely came from the towns fire station where Class B firefighting foam had been used in the past. The Fire Department now uses foam without PFAS chemicals and New Hampshire this year banned PFAS foam in firefighting and as a fabric additive in furniture.
The town of Stratham is currently providing potable water to all affected properties. To date, 16 private and public wells have been contaminated with PFAS chemicals and town taxpayers may be on the hook to install costly filtration systems on each tainted well.
Aquarion Water Company, serving Hampton, North Hampton and Rye, made headlines for its practice of blending PFAS contaminated water with water that did not contain the chemicals. Aquarion began blending as a way to meet stiffer New Hampshire drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals.
Hydrogeologist Mindi Messmer, a former Rye state representative who now serves her town on the state Commission on the Seacoast Cancer Cluster Investigation, called the practice a loophole.
Its kind of like, Well, Im going to give you a glass of water, here let me put a dropper full of gasoline in. Its not bad enough to get you sick, Messmer said. But do you want to drink it?
A North Hampton car wash, Pro-Wash at 22 Lafayette Road, was found responsible for some of the Aquarion PFAS problem and has been told to change how it disposes of contaminants.
High levels of PFAS have also been detected in the headwaters of Berry’s Brook adjacent the Coakley landfill and in monitoring wells around the Superfund cleanup site.
Follow this series of stories at seacoastonline.com/topics/top-stories-of-2019 and fosters.com/topics/top-stories-of-2019.